Montgomery leadership fails with battle over schools budget

Friday, May 14, 2010

MONTGOMERY COUNTY is on the brink of a misguided civil war. The antagonists are the County Council and the county school system, and the fight is about money. Unless the two sides step back, their squabble will develop into costly, contentious and counterproductive litigation whose chief effect will be to enshrine all involved -- elected lawmakers, school superintendent and county executive -- as among the most dysfunctional leaders in county history.

The school board and the school superintendent, Jerry D. Weast, are mainly to blame for things reaching this point. They have threatened to sue the county over budget cuts amounting to roughly $33 million, or less than 2 percent of the school system's annual spending. That's what the County Council wants to slash from the schools' budget for the fiscal year starting in July.

True, the schools' spending for next year had already been frozen at current levels despite rising enrollment. But shrinking revenue has sapped budgets countywide; in fact, the schools are taking a much lighter hit than most other county agencies and services. Under County Executive Isiah Leggett's proposed budget, transportation spending would be cut by 25 percent; libraries by 24 percent; parks by 16 percent; recreation centers by 15 percent; and health and human services programs by 11 percent.

The kid-glove treatment of the schools is reflected in the overall allocation of county funds. Over the past decade, schools have generally accounted for 53 to 56 percent of annual county spending, with the rest divided among other services, including police, fire and rescue, parks, Montgomery College, and other administrative functions. Under Mr. Leggett's proposed budget, the school system's slice of the county pie would increase to 57.2 percent. If the County Council has its way and knocks $33 million from the school system's budget, its share of overall county spending would be about 56 percent -- still a percentage point higher than its average over the past decade.

Mr. Weast argues, with some merit, that the schools are the county's golden goose, and they are already taking a hit by the freeze in spending, including teachers' salaries, in the face of rising enrollment. County Council members, digging in their heels, insist that 22,000 teachers and other school employees should take furloughs -- in effect, pay cuts -- just as most other county workers are doing.

The sensible way out is a compromise. But with egos, conflicting personalities and political futures all colliding in an election year, both sides seem incapable of meeting each other halfway. That speaks poorly of Mr. Weast, whose brinkmanship has gone too far; of Council President Nancy Floreen, whose leadership skills are in doubt; and of Mr. Leggett, who is silent when he should be guiding the two sides out of the deadlock.

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